Solving the problems of food deserts

April 7, 2016

You may have heard of “food deserts,” but do you know the implications of inaccessibility to healthy food on public health?

Mary-Katherine Smith, DrPH, public health faculty member in Capella University’s School of Nursing and Health Sciences, shares more about this public health crisis and what initiatives are in place to help eliminate it.

Q. What is a food desert?


  A. It’s a geographic area where affordable, nutritious food is hard to get. That doesn’t just mean a lack of grocery stores that sell fresh fruits and vegetables, although that’s part of it. It also involves a concentration of fast food restaurants and convenience stores that sell high-calorie, low-nutrition food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines an urban food desert as a place where concentrations of residents live at least one mile—or in rural areas, at least 10 miles—from a source of healthy food.

Lack of transportation is also a factor—if individuals don’t have a car or access to convenient public transportation, they may have no choice but to walk to that fast food restaurant or convenience store to buy food.[The USDA hasmapped food deserts in the U.S.

Q. Who’s at risk in a food desert?


A. It’s an uneven distribution, affecting primarily those with lower incomes and minorities.

It’s prevalent in urban and in rural areas, where under- and unemployment is a factor, or where individuals may not have easy access to nutritious food. And something people don’t always understand is how food deserts affect children—without proper nutrition, they can become malnourished and at greater risk for obesity, even if they’re not missing meals.

Q. What is public health’s role in working to eliminate food deserts?


   A. One way public health officials deal with health disparities is by educating communities, which takes several forms.

  • First, communities need to know how to access healthier foods. Public health professionals can help increase awareness of alternative places to obtain healthy foods other than traditional grocery stores, such as farmers markets, community gardens, co-ops, and community-supported agriculture (CSA).
  • Second, communities need to understand why healthier food is better, even if it’s sometimes more expensive. Public health professionals can help educate people on how to eat well on a limited budget. There are already many state and federal programs in place that educate communities on how to eat healthy foods on a limited budget. For example, Women Infants and Children (WIC) raises the awareness of local farmer’s markets and provides free nutrition education and fresh fruits and vegetables to low-income families.
  • Third, we need to educate communities about nutrition itself. For example, McDonald’s now offers fruit for kids’ meals and salad offerings, but if you read the nutrition labels, the salads aren’t always that much healthier than the other menu items. This is another way public health professionals can educate communities on making healthy food choices.

It’s hard to change an individual’s norms. That’s where public health comes in. Not just to educate, but to show communities the significance of wanting to change these habits. Social media is an avenue that can be very successful for public health workers to reach out to these populations, particularly in rural areas.

Q. What are public health professionals already doing to impact public policy and communities?


 A. Public health professionals can develop, fund, implement, and evaluate interventions to reduce the effects of food deserts. For example, there are partnerships in place to encourage grocery chains and food suppliers to build stores in food deserts through tax breaks, etc.

There also have been educational initiatives in communities, within grocery stores or farmers’ markets, where fresh fruits and vegetables are promoted and prominently displayed, or incentives are provided for customers to purchase fresh items rather than processed.

Public health can also educate individuals to do container and/or hydroponic gardening, work on implementing gardening programs and food growing and preparation programs into preschool, kindergarten, and elementary schools, and work on and encourage environment and community garden programs.

School-based healthy food interventions have been effective in replacing unhealthy choices in a cafeteria with healthier options, such as fruit, closer to the students’ reach and at the register.

Although there is still a lot of work to do to impact public policy and the community, public health is making a difference. 

Q. How is Capella addressing this issue in its public health programs?

           A. Capella has a strong health disparities curriculum, woven throughout all of our public health programs. Students learn how determinants of health affect health outcomes and how they vary by population. They study how to target messages to different audiences, and how to understand those audiences, reach them, and speak to them. They need to have all these tools to address these disparities, and they’re getting that in our programs.


Learn more about Capella’s online public health programs.

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